Back in the day, there were two Nelson boys in one body. One was
Adam, a bright, studious, athletically gifted Southern gentleman
with a Redfordian shock of dirty-blond hair who was educated at
an Atlanta prep school and sent on to the Ivy League in the fall
of 1993. The other was Nellie, the name given to Adam's evil twin
by his Dartmouth fraternity brothers. Nellie was a madman, a
tornado on the football field and such an intense competitor in
the shot put that teammates and opponents alike, hearing his wild
screams, thought him nuts. On weekends Nellie would troll the
Hanover, N.H., campus in an orange, prison-style jumpsuit and a
Viking helmet--a Gen-X Blutarsky looking for a party. They were as
different as midnight and noon, Adam and Nellie, yet they were
This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue
Gradually Adam, now 25, put Nellie to rest. He earned a
bachelor's degree in government in December 1997 and has worked
as a telecommunications sales supervisor, a financial consultant
and, most recently, a Silicon Valley dot.com foot soldier.
Occasionally, however, his alter ego surfaces. Late on the
afternoon of July 15, Adam threw the shot 72'7" on his final
throw to win the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and earn his
first Olympic berth. That was more than a foot farther than he
had ever thrown. As soon as the shot landed, Nellie emerged,
running wildly from the ring, his face as red as ripe watermelon,
his fists pumping, until he leaped into the arms of third-place
finisher Andy Bloom.
"I never saw the shot land," Nelson said later. "I just felt it,
and I knew it was huge. It was like the perfect golf swing, where
the ball is right on the sweet spot."
Nelson's winning toss made him the fourth-longest thrower in U.S.
history (behind world-record holder and '96 Olympic gold medalist
Randy Barnes--who has been suspended twice by the IAAF for doping
violations--Brian Oldfield and John Brenner) and was the longest
by a U.S. shot-putter since Barnes went 73'6" four years ago.
(The world record is 75'10", set in 1990 by Barnes.) Nelson will
go to Sydney as a slight favorite in a very deep competition,
after beginning the season far off the radar screen. "It's fair
to say that Adam has caught everybody off guard," says Bloom.
Nelson has risen to prominence without benefit of size. He is
6-foot and struggles to keep his weight above 250 pounds--a big
man in a sport dominated by giants. World champion C.J. Hunter of
the U.S., who finished second to Nelson in Sacramento, is 6'1",
330 pounds. Ranked second in the world last year was 6'7",
287-pound Oliver-Sven Buder of Germany; third was 6'4", 298-pound
Aleksandr Bagach of the Ukraine. Among the leading shot-putters
only the 6-foot, 275-pound Bloom is close in size to Nelson.
Nelson compensates for his lack of bulk by producing more torque
than any thrower in the world. Like most modern shot-putters,
Nelson uses the rotational style, spinning through the ring like
a discus thrower, but he is much quicker than most of his
opponents from the back of the circle to the front, and he has an
explosive, trunk-twisting release. "He throws with a style that
is not like anyone else's, ever," says Stanford associate men's
head coach Robert Weir, who will throw the discus for Great
Britain in Sydney and who has coached Nelson since spring 1998.
"A bow and arrow come to mind. His body is the bow, the shot is
the arrow, and he just slings it."
Nelson's technique is a mystery even to him, because it was not
something that he copied or was taught. The first time he picked
up a shot, when he was in the eighth grade, that's the way he
threw it. "A total accident," he says.
Nelson's success is also an accident of sorts. The second of Will
and Lynne Nelson's three children, Adam was a three-sport athlete
at The Lovett School in Atlanta: a hellacious linebacker-center
in football; a 205-pound wrestler who competed in the heavyweight
division against much larger opponents; and a solid shot-putter
who reached national prominence when he threw more than 63 feet
with the 12-pound high school shot at the end of his senior year.
An excellent student, he had by then chosen Dartmouth over
Princeton, Clemson, Furman and Georgia. "None of them," says
Nelson, "had any idea who I was."
Football was Nelson's passion (his dad, a tax attorney, had been
a center at Mississippi State in the late '60s), but his college
career was stunted by injuries: several concussions and two
shoulder separations as a freshman, and a torn medial collateral
ligament in his knee as a sophomore. He moved from linebacker to
defensive tackle as a junior and finally completed a full season.
As he rehabbed football injuries, his shot putting yo-yoed, from
the high of winning the IAAF World Junior title as a freshman to
finishing 13th in the NCAAs as a sophomore and ninth as a junior.
Nelson also partied long and hard. "But it was just a two- or
three-year deal," says Alexander Ghanotakis, his college
roommate. "After that Adam started to realize that you can't
compete at the highest levels, athletically or intellectually, if
you're staying out all night every night."
Nelson had begun finding his books and his bed and was enjoying a
solid senior football season when he broke his ankle in a
frat-house incident. "I was trying to calm down a buddy, and I
swear to god I was not drinking," says Nelson. "He pushed me, and
my ankle rolled over on a staircase. It was incredibly
disappointing, because it was the end of my football career."
Crestfallen after doctors told him that he was finished as a
football player, he talked with his father on the phone long into
Yet the injury helped define Nelson's future. In much the same
way that he had become more mature academically and socially, he
became a more committed shot-putter. Under Dartmouth throws and
jumps coach Carl Wallin, Nelson concentrated on channeling his
energy into great throws. In practice Wallin made a quick man
even quicker by having Nelson throw "light" shots weighing 14 or
15 pounds. "Throwing lighter shots reinforces technique and
builds speed," says Wallin. "My theory is that if you can throw
something light far, you can eventually throw something a little
heavier far as well." In the spring of '97 Nelson won the NCAA
outdoor title. He used his final season of track eligibility to
finish second in the NCAA indoor meet in March 1998. A month
later he moved to California to train with Weir.
For two seasons Nelson improved in practice, but nagging injuries
in '99 kept him in the high 67-foot range, too short to make the
Olympic team. In July of last year he quit a 55-hour-a-week job
as a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch and networked his
way to a position in business development with Icarian, an
Internet software company in Sunnyvale, Calif. Icarian was
flexible about Nelson's hours throughout the winter and spring
and allowed him to take a leave of absence in June. (He plans to
return to Icarian after the Olympics.)
He is happy to delay the acquisition of wealth to pursue a small
serving of gold. "This Olympic thing," he says, "I've really got
to get it out of my system."
Just as he did with Nellie.
"It was like the perfect golf swing."
Nelson's throwing style.